The conservatives’ bond

In recent days, some social conservatives have complained that economic issues, rather than the social and family matters of such vital concern to them, are receiving too much attention. Those conservatives who believe the struggle against terrorism deserves more attention too seem to feel Americans are overly obsessed with the threat from a growing and metastasizing federal bureaucracy at the expense of attention to our enemies abroad.

The reverse has been true in the past. In the George W. Bush years, former congressman and economist Dick Armey complained (in The New York Times, of all places) that social conservatives and “their” issues seemed to be getting more attention than the issues he believed so important.

At the time, social issues were on the front burner politically just as economic issues are today and national-security issues were immediately after Sept. 11, 2001. While Armey’s priorities may have differed from those of a social-issues conservative like former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), who has been complaining recently about the political focus on economic issues, or of a national-defense conservative like Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, all three would agree at the end of the day that all of these issues are important.

This fundamental agreement on the basics is the glue that holds the conservative coalition together. Politicians unconcerned with values and issues are prone to assembling coalitions of convenience in search of a majority, but such coalitions can prove fragile when one faction or another sees a chance to profit at the expense of the others. Within the ranks of the conservative movement, only a few would jettison their coalition partners for political convenience. The late Irving Kristol argued rather cynically a few years ago, for example, that conservatives should abandon their stand for limited government not because it was wrong but because it was a difficult position to “sell” and a few economic and social conservatives harbor a secret desire to sacrifice the other for political reasons.

But they are few. Most conservatives stick together precisely because they see each other as philosophical soulmates. Most of those predicting a breakup of the conservative coalition are non-conservatives hoping that differences will ultimately prove more important than shared values. Their hope and continued consternation reminds me at a superficial level of the way many on the right felt about the goofiness of the New Deal Democratic coalition that was held together for more than 40 years not by a common philosophy but a common desire for a share of government largesse.

Greed is a powerful glue. It kept black leaders, Southern racist officials, Northern union bosses and liberal elitists together for decades in a cynical bargain from which each group profited from avoiding any real discussion of what they believed or how they felt about each other. Their partnership collapsed in the late ’60s and ’70s because a changing world forced a confrontation on ideas that ultimately trumped all else.

Conservatives are and always have been a fractious bunch. In the early days of the movement — when we could have met if not in a phone booth, then holding hands in one tight circle around it — we spent a good deal of time arguing ideas and in the process discovered that whether we described ourselves as economic, libertarian, social or anti-communist first, we had much more in common than any of us had initially believed possible.

It was these common beliefs — in individual freedom, a market economy and traditional values — that led the late Frank Meyer of the National Review to develop what he called “fusionism.” Meyer argued for years that conservatives of various stripes could prevail so long as they recognized that they are bound together not by greed and ambition, but by common values and goals to be chosen by free men and women rather than dictated by an all-powerful state.

He recognized that the ties that bind the various strands of conservatism are far stronger than those that held the New Deal coalition together because they are not simply built on cynical convenience. Many or even most libertarians often disagree with social conservatives on priorities or issues and then argue with each other on how best to advance the legitimate national-security interests of the United States. Their disagreements, however, tend to be tactical rather than philosophical; they agree on far more than their critics understand and are hence able to unite when unity is essential to political success.

The vast majority of conservatives agreed with Meyer then, and the conservative movement owes much to the continuing belief in the glue of these basic shared values.

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.